Tuyet Thi Mai, 69, already receives state public assistance, but still cannot afford rent. She is among the poorest and most vulnerable of the Asian Pacific American (APA) population.
The Model Minority Myth often leads to the perception that APAs don’t need public assistance. However, in reality, APAs encompass a wide range of socio-economic and education levels. It is also the fastest growing racial minority, according to the 2010 U.S Census. As the APA population grows, so does the number of its most vulnerable and economically challenged members – members like Mai, who can barely afford food and doesn’t have a permanent home. What will happen to Mai if the public assistance program that she relies on for survival is eliminated? And what effect, then, would that have on the rest of the state’s population?
When Gov. Christine Gregoire released her budget in November 2011, she proposed to eliminate four out of six programs designed to serve immigrants and refugees, and to significantly cut another two programs. Among the programs proposed for complete elimination are State Food and State Family Assistance – the only programs people like Mai have access to and need. The programs receiving significant cuts are the Naturalization Program and Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Pathway, which can help people like Mai become U.S citizens and gain access to better public assistance.
The programs proposed for eliminations and cuts are expected to be voted on by state legislators this month. If legislators decide to pass proposed eliminations and cuts, there will be significant impact on immigrants and refugees, as well as trickling effects on others in the state.
“People are going to suffer. They are going to starve,” predicted Tony Lee, one of the founders of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition. “They are going to become homeless.”
Homelessness is a situation Mai is already on the brink of. Even though she receives State Food Assistance right now, Mai still cannot afford a place to live.
After losing her husband in a car accident – the same accident that handicapped Mai and hindered her from finding a job – Mai had no one else in Vietnam, and came to the U.S to join her only daughter four and a half years ago.
Her daughter, however, has to take care of four small children and an ailing father-in-law. When Mai started to live with her daughter’s family, she soon realized there was no room for her and had to find a home somewhere else.
“I want to take care of myself,” said Mai
Up until last year, Mai was able to pay a portion of the rent at a distant relative’s apartment with cash allowance from the General Assistance Program. However, that allowance was significantly cut last year, leaving Mai unable to afford rent. To avoid becoming homeless, Mai sought shelter at a Vietnamese Buddhist temple.
“I asked the nun. [They let me stay.] I [now] live in a temple.”
The temple, however, cannot provide food. So Mai relies on State Food Assistance to eat.
“The temple doesn’t really have money for me,” said Mai.
Currently, State Food Assistance provides food stamps to immigrants and refugees who are not eligible for the federal food stamp program. It currently serves 31,000 individuals, 13,000 of whom are children.
State Family Assistance, which provides families with children 18 years or under with monthly cash allowances, currently serves 1,200 immigrant families, with two to four children on average per family. Completely terminating these programs will devastate many people.
“I will have to stay at the temple forever [and] become a nun,” said Mai, light-heartedly.
Her only other option is to become a citizen, so she can access programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Mai is also currently enrolled in the Naturalization Program and the English as Second Language (ESL) class. However, the Naturalization Program, which assists low-income individuals to become citizens through programs such as preparation classes, application assistance and a fee waiver, is up for a 47 percent cut. And LEP Pathway, which helps immigrants and refugees become self-sufficient with training, job search, ESL School and other services, is being proposed for a 50 percent cut from state funding. The cutbacks are significant, even though these programs have a great track record for helping immigrants and refugees with naturalization.
“I have gone to other places [to learn English],” said Ruby, a 69-year-old immigrant from China, who does not want to disclose her last name. “But the teachers here have impeccable English. They have a lot of knowledge. They help us apply for citizenship.”
“They have great service,” said Su Seng Dai, a 72-year-old immigrant from Taiwan. “[If the programs are cut], we feel terrible. If we don’t have the service, we don’t know what to do.”
“They help us with everything. We don’t know anything. They help us apply for everything, like housing … anything,” added Ruby.
Xue Wen Hu is a 79-year-old retiree who just became a citizen, and is now receiving SSI and Medicare. “[The Naturalization Program] helped a lot. I learned the entire system. The Naturalization Program helped me with my problems [in English].”
Hu continued, “I had no one in China. I had nowhere to live. I came to the United States for my children. But I do not want to burden them. [After becoming a citizen,] I can now receive SSI. The government gives me $674 a month, state gives me $46, and I qualify for Medicare.”
“[If the programs are cut] it will be extremely difficult [to pass the citizenship exam],” added Hu. “There was no one to help me. All I had was the program.”
In addition to qualifying for government programs that are only available to citizens, becoming naturalized also provides better job opportunities. Seattle-based companies such as Boeing only hire U.S citizens for certain positions. For Mai, however, becoming naturalized is her only means to battle hunger and homelessness.
“I have to find a way to become a citizen somehow,” said Mai.
A lack of food and shelter and a sense of devastation may seem like immediate effects that only impact low-income immigrants and refugees, but the programs’ eliminations and cuts will have trickling affects on the economy and social fabric of the state and Seattle.
Without food stamps, people cannot purchase food and contribute to the economy. Without a place to stay, they will become homeless, creating added pressure on shelters, hospitals, and society.
“People won’t have money to buy food from grocery stores,” said the API Coalition’s Lee, who is also the advocacy director for Solid Ground. “When people receive these kinds of assistance, they put it back to the economy. It will have an impact on the economy.”
“[Homelessness] will lead to a host of problems, such as domestic violence and an increase in gang-related crime,” added Jeff Wendland, director of the Naturalization Program and LEP Pathway at the Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS), a nonprofit that offers social services and safety net programs, including those being cut and eliminated, to APAs in King County.
With a signficantly large Asian Pacific American population in Seattle, everyone will feel the trickling effects of these programs’ eliminations and cuts.
“The Asian Pacific American population is about 15 percent of Seattle and 15 percent of King County… [Therefore] these program cuts and eliminations will have significant impact on Seattle’s population,” said Diane Narasaki, executive director of ACRS. “These programs are a critical part of the safety net for immigrants and refugees. In many cases, immigrants and refugees will not have alternatives to the programs cut or eliminated, due to their immigration status.”
“Immigrants and refugees pay the same state taxes as all other state residents, yet they alone would be singled out to be barred from the safety net programs our most vulnerable members rely on to survive or improve their lives,” added Narasaki, “I find that immoral, unjust and unacceptable.”
“To me it is an equality and social justice issue,” said Victor Loo, director of Recovery Services at ACRS, “It’s wrong and unjust. All the proposed cuts are dear to immigrants.”
Narasaki explains that if these programs are lost “it would be extremely difficult to bring them back. That is one reason why it is so critical to save them.”
Lee said, “If the Legislature were to cut the program instead of eliminating it, we would have a good chance to restore it when times get better.”
In dire situations the Asian Pacific American community have been resilient by uniting together. Past efforts to reduce cuts or defend the elimination of programs have been successful.
“During the tough times,” added Loo, “we really need to advocate.”
Read part II in this special series in the next Jan. 18, 2012 issue. It focuses on impacts to health care and our seniors.